David Challis’ kicks off a series on great English club sides. He takes a look at the great Leicester Tigers side that dominated domestic and European rugby at the dawn of professionalism.
This saw Tigers overtake Bath as England’s most successful side. This squad also played a vital role in England’s successful World Cup campaign in 2003. This side was full of great players that remain a part of the Leicester rugby family till this day.
The Early Year – 1990s
Leicester Tigers were a force in English rugby during the 1990s, however, for the most part, they were unable to rise to the top of then Courage League. A handful of top-two finishes and a singular title win accompanied strong cup runs on a regular basis.
The dawn of professionalism sent shock waves through English rugby; many sides struggled to cope with the change. However, with Dean Richards taking the reigns as Head Coach in 1998, he took the club to new heights in the uncertain world of professional rugby.
The Golden Years
Richards ushered in a golden age for Leicester Tigers. From 1999-2002 they won four league titles as well as back to back Heineken Cups in 2001-02. This was an unprecedented level of success for any rugby side.
The DNA of this side was always centred around their forward pack. The familiar sights of scrums going backwards and driving mauls plagued opposition sides during the turn of the millennia. The old adage that forwards win matches was essentially built around looking at this Leicester team.
Such upfront strength is something all Leicester Tigers teams have tried to imitate since. Some would argue this drive to replicate the old Tigers DNA has been the undoing of current sides. Such unprecedented success in the past can often create problems in the future.
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The Fortress of Welford Road
All great sides have an amazing home record, it almost goes without saying. Leicester Tigers were no exception. From December 1997 to November 2002 they went 57 games unbeaten at home. The phycological effect of sides travelling to Welford Road was sometimes enough to win the game before sides even got off the bus.
In this period Tigers only lost 14 games in 4 seasons. The winning mentality was ingrained in this side and it translated into the England side. 10 of the 30 members of the England World Cup-winning squad in 2003 harking from the Leicester forward unit.
The Players that made them Tick
Martin Johnson was an obvious choice here. Abrasive on and off the field with a CV to rival all in the game. He was a back to back Lions captain, leading the side to a successful tour to South Africa in 1997. Famously as well he led England to the World Cup in 2003, this sort of a leader bred success wherever he went and that was not different with Leicester.
Much is made about the success of the Leicester Tigers pack. However, little success would have been found without a brilliant general directing behind. Joel Stransky in 1997 he amassed just shy of 900 points for the side as he led them to some of their first domestic success.
Neil Back was often Johnson’s partner in crime around the tight exchanges. Racking up 339 appearances in his time at the club alongside 66 England caps the flanker will go down in history as one of the greats. So many great names could go on this list, Geordan Murphy was often the spark in the outside channels as well as the likes of Graham Rowntree and Richard Cockerill led brutally from the front.
The Tigers Dynasty
In recent times Leicester Tigers have fallen down the table due to a mix of uncertainty at board and management level as well as questionable recruitment. However, the group that led the club to such heights did leave behind a legacy that took a while to wean.
The Midlands side were play-off regulars during the 2000s and often reached the knockout stages of the European competitions. However, the success that came before has appeared to hold more recent squads back. Harking back to older times is rarely the route to new success.
A reinvention is needed at Welford Road it seems. Starting from scratch is daunting but as the gradual rise to success in the early 90s showed, to be successful once more Leicester Tigers must stop looking back no matter how tempting that may be.
“Main Photo Credits”
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